Friday, January 02, 2004


As Arnold Schwarzenegger starts a new year as California's governor, some of the more alert media hacks sense that something is wrong. Journalists allude to "his sudden and inexplicable flip-flops on major policy questions", and predict "In the coming year, the governor will have to make tough decisions that will earn him plenty of enemies." The popularity of a website that monitors the Gropinator, and the appearance of Doonesbury cartoons portraying the Governor as a giant groping hand are further indications that the post-election honeymoon is coming to an end.

It's time, it seems, to explain why the Schwarzenegger regime is going to be fundamentally different from those of the last 20 years -- much more amusing and more dangerous. In a word: "charisma": the divine gift of inspirational personality. Max Weber, the brilliantly unreadable founder of political sociology, saw charisma as one of the three basic sources of political authority, the others being tradition and reason. Arnold the candidate was a creature of Hollywood; his celebrity glowed with manufactured charisma. As a candidate, he was favor of kids and against bad stuff, and his election was a triumph of pure personality, divorced from any ideology.

In the "rational", modern California of the early 21st century, state government operates as a large, technically specialized bureaucracy. Governors Deukmejian, Wilson and Davis all wore the role of top bureaucrat like a glove. But charismatic authority is radically opposed to rational and particularly bureaucratic authority. The personality cult of the leader is inherently unstable. Actor Schwarzenegger’s role now is to play the Governor as Action-Hero, not the top state paper-pusher. Yet the machinery of California state government is, at its core, rational and bureaucratic. At present it is also under high stress, since the state’s tax structure and program budgeting have been repeatedly mangled by voter initiatives and fiscal gimmickry. Nothing in the special effects repertoire tells us what to expect when an Action-Hero confronts the budget dragon in the cave of structural deficits.

History, however, offers a clue. Ian Kershaw's recent biography of Adolf Hitler distills the essence of charismatic leadership in a quote from a minor party official "until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Führer." Kershaw elaborates: “Hitler's personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals. This promoted ferocious competition at all levels of the régime, among competing agencies, and among the individuals within those agencies.... Through working towards the Führer initiatives were taken, pressures created, legislation instigated -- all in ways which fell into line with what were taken to be Hitler's aims, and without the dictator necessarily having to dictate.... The disintegration of the formal machinery of government and the accompanying ideological radicalization resulted then directly and inexorably from the specific form of personalized rule under Hitler." (Kershaw: Hitler, Vol. 1 Hubris, pp. 529 – 531 (1998)) *

Arnold has no visible ideology beyond the well-meaning geniality of the self-made wealthy movie star. As a result, all of his friends, associates and appointees are free to push their own notions of policy in the belief they are "working towards the Governor." We can expect his political campaign staff to scrounge contributions in preparation for the next campaign – that’s what they know how to do, and that’s they how they can “work towards the Governor”. Arnold’s legislative contact folks will negotiate and play legislative games, even as the political operatives are denouncing the Legislature – all are, in their own way, “working towards the Governor”. Donna Arduin, Arnold’s spectacularly incompetent budget director, will slash and burn away at spending for Medicare, public universities and state regulatory agencies, while the Governor’s many political appointees will pursue their more-or-less conservative Republican agendas. All will act without coordination, since orders from the top require the bureaucratic style, not the inspirational. Arnold lacks the training, the experience and the instincts of a bureaucratic manager, and he knows it. The role of charismatic leader requires him to remain uninvolved, floating above the fray. Benign detachment allows him to claim credit for any successes, while disclaiming or even apologizing for any injuries done by followers who fail to correctly assess the political impact of their actions.

"Working towards the Governor" is the only sensible explanation of how the Schwarzenegger administration operates. Why else would there be an announcement of cuts in programs for the disabled (Arduin), followed by outcries and a promise of restoration (Maria Shriver/Kennedy)? Why else compound budget problems with a $4 billion tax cut (revoking the scheduled reversion of vehicle taxes to the pre-bubble level), followed after outcries by a promise to somehow restore funds to the shortchanged cities and counties, along with a declaration of a fake emergency so state university budgets could be cut midyear to backfill a few weeks of city and county money, topped off by firm insistence that it’s now up to the Legislature to unearth enough money to compensate for the Governor’s tax cut? Totally irresponsible but wonderful political theater.

The immediate problem for Schwarzenegger is the need to release the Governor’s proposed budget for fiscal 2004-05 on January 9. Even after allowing for the usual unrealistic assumptions about revenue and expense trends, this will be an ugly, painful document. No Action-Hero would want to be associated with the grab bag of college tuition increases, hospital waiting lists, early jail releases and other false economies that will likely emerge from Arduin’s Department of Finance. Charismatic leaders and civil service accountants are at the opposite end of the personality scale, and budget arithmetic is not part of the heroic skill set.

So what will Arnold do? What would you do? Given the intractable nature of the state’s budget problems, wouldn’t you govern by image? Perhaps media perception of fiscal reality can be distracted by offering a ballot proposition for strict budgetary virtue, starting real soon. (The New Year’s Resolution mentality: It’s OK to gorge today because the new diet starts tomorrow.) Perhaps a Hero needs enemies? Although, because Arnold is a Hollywood comic-book type of Hero, the enemies cannot be real people – that would be too divisive – but must instead be manga stereotypes. The Legislature is a stock cartoon villain, and the state employee labor unions can be caricatured as bureaucratic dinosaurs. (Even civil servants hate “bureaucracy”.) Arnold’s friends and appointees will predictably disorganize and weaken the rational operations of state government and fiscal policies in the course of “working towards the Governor”, but this can be interpreted as showing that rational government is failing, justifying additional grants of power to our charismatic ruler.

I hope I’m wrong.

* Do note: I am not implying in any way that Schwarzenegger is a Nazi. Nazis had an evil ideology, while Schwarzenegger appears to be a charming, slightly predatory egotist with no ideology at all. One could likely find among the followers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, or Mao Zedong (to name three other charismatics) a similar desire to “work towards the leader” resulting in a similar tendency towards disintegration of rational bureaucratic structures of governance.

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